From the Alps to the Himalaya…
In early April of this year I was planning my trip and gearing up for an incredible race in July called Eleventy One which is part of La Ultra The High race in the Himalayas. My dear friend and race director Rajat Chauhan came up with another intriguing race in the mountains above Leh, India. This would be my fourth trip to those awesome snowy peaks attempting a run at elevations from 11,000 ft to 18,000 ft.
Meanwhile, my girlfriend and ultra running pal, Georganna Quarles invited me to come to Chamonix, France in the French Alps and train with her for her upcoming race on Mont Blanc, the infamous Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (or UTMB for short!) I surprisingly found a cheapo flight to Geneva was able to join Georg and combine both trips for my summer adventure.
Arriving in Geneva, Switzerland on July 5, I arranged for a company called Mountain Drop Offs (Georganna’s great suggestion!) to pick me up to take me the hour drive up into the French Alps, to incredible Chamonix, France. Words can’t describe the incredible views of the surrounding mountains. They were so different from the mountains of the Himalayas. They were more green and lush. Of course they weren’t as high as the tallest mountains in the world but they were nonetheless majestic and daunting.
I arrived a day before Georg and grabbed a room at Hotel Alpina. I spent a day getting over jet lag and wandered aimlessly through the town that looked like it should have Julie Andrews twirling in a circle and singing The Sound of Music! There were flowers in every window box and flower boxes lining the streets. Every structure looked like a cozy chalet with colorful window shutters in red or green. The streets were so clean they looked as if they had just been washed. Poking up behind the town were the snow capped peaks raised like giant skyscrapers. Magnificent peaks of rock and snow with huge glaciers in between their spires. Georganna met me at the Hotel Alpina and helped grab my bags to move into her chalet after she arrived. Her back windows opened up out into grand views of Mont Blanc.
Georg had meticulously planned out our training schedule. She was on a mission to get a ton of training in before her race 2 months away. I was along for the ride and was ready to go along with any agenda she had. After all, I felt fortunate to be invited in the first place. I had no expectations and no agenda of my own other than to experience this new and interesting place.
The next day we jumped up, put on our running gear and backpacks and prepared to run a 28 mile course. we took a bus across the border to Courmayer, Italy. The plan was to run the UTMB course from there to Switzerland. This was tough and intricate trails weaving through the Alps. The plan was after we arrived at our goal in Switzerland, at the 28 mile mark, we had reservations at a little hotel and would spend the night. We were planning on continuing the next morning for more 17 miles, rounding the mountain and ending back to Chamonix.
Things didn’t go exactly as planned.
The morning started off beautifully. We got off the bus in Italy, found the ancient church in Courmayer, and located the trail behind it that ran up into the Alps. The first 4 or 5 miles are straight up! Calves burning and legs aching, it took a long while for me to warm up. Georganna was a machine. I could tell how much she had been working at this level of difficulty. She made it look easy and I tried to keep up the best I could.
The views were incredible to say the least. The trails were pristine and single track amidst green grasses and flowers. It varied from thick forest to meadow and valleys, then jagged rocky peaks. Sometimes we would trudge through snow patches. I noticed that even as we made our way higher and higher we occasionally saw lots of hikers in every age group. I saw elderly grandmas, and little kids all out and on endless curling paths going in every direction.
Every few miles we would come to a Refuge. A Refuge is a small little cottages where you can buy bread and cheese, beer or wine, a cappincino and take refuge. Many hikers make it to the refuge and sleep a night in little dormitory rooms then get up the next day and continue their hike. There are no roads or vehicle access to the Refuge. All supplies are dropped in by helicopter.
When we arrived at these points, Georg and I simply grabbed some bread and cheese and took a few minutes to regroup and continue along our course. We had a long way to go and wanted to get through the 28 miles before dark. Occasionally we snapped pictures and chatted about some of our favorite races and people. It was an awesome day of moving quickly, power walking then running, depending upon the difficulty of the grade. As the hours progressed the weather started to deteriorate.
Huge angry clouds began to block out the happy sun and the wind swirled and blew and to picked up speed. We noticed a big change in temperatures dropping when we were attempting our second climb of the day. It seemed to me that it was our 20th huge climb of the day but Georg assured me that the other climbs were babies compared to what was ahead! We made a quick stop at a Refuge and pulled on our rain jackets and gloves out of our packs. At this point the wind was picking up and big blotches of rain started to spill. We headed out and up! A quarter mile up the trail the downpour started. Heavy rain, then hail, then lightening and thunder clapping right over our heads.
The thunder pounded so hard at one point I thought my eardrums were going to burst and my chest reverberated with the sound. The lightening lit up the sky and the thunder clapped right on us. I saw Georg sink to a squatting position in reaction to one of the booms of thunder. She turned back to me with rain pouting off her head and shoulders running down her jacket.
“I think we should turn back” she yelled above the booming.
“There is no shelter for miles”
I seconded the motion to turn back. I thought one of us was going to get hit by lightening. A couple of hikers behind us continued past as we turned to go back down. They didn’t look very confident in the flashing pound of the thunder and lightening. The woman stared at me and I knew from her facial expression in the flashing light that she wasn’t thrilled about her partner trudging on ahead.
I was suddenly freaked out holding my trekking poles and wondering if they attract lightening! The mud and rain started to race down and wash out our trail. Big clumps of mud and water made running difficult and we scrambled, ran, slid down down back to the refuge. The hail hit my legs so hard it hurt. Visibility was limited as the dark cloud enveloped us. Small mud slides were sliding over my shoes as I tried to find footing on the washed out trail. Within minute I felt like I was inside a full blown shower raining down on all my clothes and pack. I wanted nothing more than to get to a structure that would protect me from the lightening bolts.
We reached the refuge and scrambled into the building. Ahhh warm safety! A trekker from Irleand arrived just ahead of us and was shaking off his backpack.
“You made a wise decision,”he said when he saw us. ” I saw you two head up the mountain and knew that the storm was going to break and I wondered what you would do. it’s not smart to be out in that”
We agreed and stood for a few moments letting the tons of water on us pool at our feet. My Patagonia jacket saved me. The top half of my body was totally dry. My running skirt unfortunately did little to protect me from the elements. My running shoes were trashed with mud and soaked through. I was also chilled to the bone from the the hail dumping on us.
Moments later I was sipping a hot cappincino with a foamy cinnamon top shaped like a happy face. I thought I had a momentary nightmare and had dreamed a terrible trailmrun in inclimental weather until I heard another big boom outside our refuge and flashed back to George ducking from the lightening.
A short time later, the couple who had passed us to continue up the trail, were making their way through the door. Clothes dripping and hoods hanging low they made their way exhausted onto some chairs in the corner. They were speaking in Italian is excited voices and waving hands. I think they we happy to be safe!
So, here we were stuck on a mountain in a refuge miles from Chamonix. We weren’t going to make it to our reservations at our little hotel in Switzerland. The weather was not going to give up. Georganna asked the inn keeps what our options were. The inn keeper told us that a bus would be coming to the bottom of the mountain at 6pm. If we could get down to the bus it would take us back to Courmayer. If we missed the bus we would,have to stay at the refuge all night. It was 5pm. We sucked down our cappuccinos and loaded on our wet jackets, grabbed our trekking pulls and hauled ass. We ran down down down the mountain. We race through thick streams of glacier water as the rain fall made the streams rapid and overflowing. I gave up trying to keep my shoes dry.
We actually started laughing and screaming, thankful to be off the top of the mountain and horrified to, still be out in the elements of cold, wind and wild rain. It was an insane run with a couple of crazy women laughing and screaming their way to safety and security. We made it 17 miles instead of our 28 for the day. I loved every minute of it!
Down through the trees and forest we popped out onto a bus stop…in the middle of nowhere with a bus driver sitting and reading the paper. Georg and I both looked at each other and and stood by the door. He opened it and let us in. George asked if he spoke English. He didn’t.
We said ” Courmayer?” ( the city that we needed to get to)
He said ” oui! ”
We hopped in, the only passages on a bus in the middle of a forest. He started the bus and began driving away as we giggled like a couple of kids. Georg pointed out the window as she spotted other runners running towards the bus. We couldn’t communicate with the bus driver so we just hoped that another bus would be on its way to get any other stranded runners out of the storm.
The bus dropped us at Courmayer and quickly learned we had missed the last bus to Chamonix and our little chalet. All the trains were down for repairs…stranded! We found a travel center and they ordered us a taxi. We arrived back to our cozy home and lavished ourselves in hot showers and a big dinner. After a restful sleep we popped up the next morning, put on our running clothes and headed out for another adventure.
It was a stunningly gorgeous day. We picked a 13 mile trail up, into the alps and enjoyed miles of challenging hills and rocky terrain with panoromatic views as we ran along the cliffs. Everything was fine until the witching hour of 3pm….same time as the previous day. The clouds rolled in and dumped! This time however we were already over the top of the mountain and headed down back to the apt. We also had tree cover at times but the mud slides and rushing water did wreck havoc on our trail. We finished again as drowned rats with smiling faces happy to be badasses in The Alps.
What kind of crazy person likes to do that? Obviously there are at least two of us.
The last day in France I played typical tourist and walked among shops and browsed and strolled, but I have to say, I kept glancing up into those mountains and was a little sad that I wasn’t on some ridge a few thousand feet above looking back down on this little town. What a magical place.
Now I am sitting in an airport in Geneva, on my way to Zurich, to catch a flight to New Delhi, to catch a flight to Leh, India…my home away from home. My legs are pleasantly tired. My calf muscles remembering the Alps. I can’t think of a better way to prepare for my race on July 23.
Onto the next adventure, to run 111k up on the top of another mountain, worlds away in Leh.
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